He'll Have All The Time He Needs

[ Posted Thursday, April 10th, 2008 – 15:02 UTC ]

And so we enter Phase IV of the Iraq war. Where "special groups" are now the enemy, and both Petraeus and George W. Bush will have all the time they need... at least until January 20th of next year.

President Bush gave an address today, to back up the congressional testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. The most telling quote from the entire thing was:

General Petraeus has reported that security conditions have improved enough to withdraw all five surge brigades by the end of July. That means that by July 31st, the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq will be down by 25 percent from last year.

Beyond that, General Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions.

And I've told him he'll have all the time he needs.

Up until the day Bush leaves office, of course. Bush also hilariously (he was attempting to be magnanimous) said he would reduce tours of duty from 15 months to 12... but only (here's the hilarious part) for soldiers deployed after August. Meaning that their tour of duty is going to be decided by the next president no matter what Bush says, one way or the other. Actually, it's not hilarious, it's tragic -- for everyone deployed until August, who will have to continue serving 15-month tours.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vigorously responded to Bush. From a Washington Post article today:

"The president still doesn't understand that America's limited resources cannot support this endless war that he's gotten us involved in," Reid said. "This is not a so-called troop withdrawal pause. With today's announcement, the president signaled to the American people that he has no intention of bringing home any more troops."

Instead, Reid said, Bush is "leaving all the tough decisions" to the next president. Despite Bush's rejection of a timetable, he added, "The president has a time line: January 20th of next year. Our troops also need a time line."

Pelosi said the war has imposed a "huge" cost in casualties, "severely damaged" America's reputation in the world and drained an "astronomical" amount of taxpayer dollars.

"The president has taken us into a failed war, he's taken us deeply into debt, and . . . that debt is taking us into recession," she said. "He is just dragging this out so he can put it at the doorstep of the new president of the United States."

I have to say, Pelosi and Reid's take on the situation sounds a lot closer to reality than Bush's.

Also telling is the fact that the war has now officially entered a new phase, with a new enemy. Phase I we all recall as the "shock and awe" initial invasion. At three weeks, it was the shortest phase of the war. Phase I enemy -- Saddam Hussein's military forces. Phase II began almost immediately thereafter, when we were battling Sunni insurgents, mostly former members of the disbanded Iraq Army. Phase II enemy -- disgruntled Sunnis. Phase III really began when the extremist Sunni group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (or Al Qaeda in Iraq) blew up a Shi'ite shrine, inciting sectarian violence country-wide. Phase III enemy -- Sunni terrorists, Shi'ite militias. Phase IV has now officially begun, with the enemy (as Petraeus repeatedly put it during his testimony) the "special groups" of Shi'ites in Iraq that Iran is funding and supplying.

Many have noted this change in "the enemy" we are currently supposed to be fighting. The Associated Press has a good article out today on this shifting enemy. But I feel there's another piece to this puzzle that is being missed. Remember, Bush is in talks with Maliki's Iraqi government over a status of forces agreement. Our legal U.N. mandate to be in Iraq expires at the end of this year, and to replace it Bush and Maliki are currently trying to hammer out an agreement. This agreement, it should be noted, will have to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, but not by our own Congress -- if Bush has his way about it. Senate Democrats have signaled a willingness to push back on this, so stay tuned.

But whether Bush succeeds in this end-run around the Senate or not does not change the fact that they're busily hammering out details to this agreement right now. Bush has already backed down by agreeing to language about "no permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq," but then again he's never defined (to the American public, much less to the Iraqis) what exactly constitutes a "permanent" base, leaving (as Bush sees it) a lot of wiggle room. Another contentious issue will likely be the status of our mercenary force in Iraq -- oops, I meant to say "our private contractor security forces in Iraq" -- and whose law they will be operating under next year.

But the biggest thing to watch for in this agreement is -- written or unwritten -- "security guarantees" for the Maliki government itself. To put it another way, is Bush (and the U.S. military) going to use a variation of the "Musharraf policy" with Maliki? [This name comes from the fact that Bush hasn't really had a "Pakistan policy," instead -- since 9/11 -- he's had a "Musharraf policy."] Will we give similar unquestioning support to Maliki's government, no matter what it decides to do?

Basra may turn out to have been Maliki testing these boundaries too see how far he could stretch them -- and us. Maliki sent in the Iraq Army to try to rout out the Mahdi Army, but never actually admitted it was doing so. Maliki made pronouncements about attacking "gangs" and "criminals" and "militias" but never publicly said they were, in reality, only going after one of those militias -- Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Other Shi'ite militias in Basra, supported by Iran, were left untouched.

This makes it difficult for Bush and Petraeus to explain exactly who the enemy is. Here is Bush, at various points during his statement this morning:

Serious and complex challenges remain in Iraq, from the presence of Al Qaeda to the destructive influence of Iran

. . .

Prime Minister Maliki's government launched operations in Basra that make clear a free Iraq will no longer tolerate the lawlessness by Iranian-backed militants.

. . .

The regime in Tehran also has a choice to make: they can live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties, or it can continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran.

Interesting phrase, that. "Illegal" militant groups. Meaning that there must be legal militant groups as well.

Now, I didn't expect Bush to come out and say "the Mahdi Army is the new enemy in Iraq," but it's clear what all of this means. Any militia which Maliki states is "illegal" is now our enemy. Militias which support Maliki -- whether funded by Iran or not -- are not "illegal" and therefore not the enemy. The irony in this situation is that much like John McCain thinks Al Qaeda is Shi'ite, the subtleties are lost on the average American. Because what we're doing is backing up Maliki with our military, on the side of the Shi'ite militia (the Badr Brigade) which is more closely aligned with Iran than the Mahdi Army. Bush is hoping we won't notice that inconvenient fact.

General Petraeus gave a press conference today as well, further muddying the waters:

Asked if he considered Sadr "an enemy of the United States," Petraeus replied: "The best way to characterize Moqtada al-Sadr is that he is the face and the leadership of a very important and legitimate political movement in Iraq" He noted that Sadr's movement was part of the coalition that elected Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and that it has 30 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

"It is a movement that has to be not just acknowledged but addressed, dealt with, reached out to by the government of Iraq," he said. "And I think . . . it is fair to say that that is the intention of the government."

Crocker said Sadr's movement "has significant roots in Iraqi political life" going back to the 1990s. "It is an important element in the Iraqi landscape, and certainly as a political movement, no, I would not consider it our enemy," he said.

A questioner pressed the two on how Sadr would not be considered a U.S. enemy in light of a recent interview in which the fiery Shiite cleric told the al-Jazeera Arabic television network that it was all right to shoot American occupiers, just not in cities where Iraqi civilians might get hurt.

"Well, certainly, anybody who shoots at our forces, at Iraqi forces or innocent civilians has to be dealt with," Petraeus said. He suggested that those doing so were "cloaking their actions in the name of what, again, is a respected movement, a nationalist movement, and one that is known for having reached out over the years to the poor and downtrodden in Iraq, that stayed in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein period and suffered greatly at its hands."

So the Mahdi Army isn't our enemy unless they shoot at us, or unless Maliki takes them on with the Iraqi Army (those that don't desert) and then needs our help to back him up.

What this could quickly develop into is easy to see: our "enemy" in Iraq is anyone who Maliki says our "enemy" is. Whoever he tells the Iraqi Army to take on automatically becomes America's enemy as well. This may have been one of his main goals in his ill-fated excursion into Basra -- to test the willingness of the United States military to fight who he told them to fight.

This is what giving Maliki "security guarantees" means. It means he -- and he alone -- decides who and what is a "security threat" to the Iraqi government. He decides who is a "special group" and who is not. We would be guaranteeing Maliki's hold on power, not the security of the Iraqi people.

Which is why it all makes me wonder if the backroom deals currently being negotiated between Maliki and Bush aren't the whole point of this entire exercise in obfuscation. If Bush can keep Maliki in office until he leaves, then Bush can blame any subsequent problems on the next administration.

He'll have all the time he needs, in other words, to dump the resulting mess on someone else.


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “He'll Have All The Time He Needs”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Good and thoughtful post. What you say about how Bush forms his foreign policy makes sense. There is a pattern there to see. Given what has occurred in Pakistan recently it does not bode well for the future of Iraq.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I thought that the Democrats were railing against Bush because he WASN'T listening to the generals on the ground??

    Now that Bush is doing just that, you claim that Bush SHOULDN'T!!

    War is too important to leave to know-nothing politicians..

    Wouldn't you agree??


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    It's also interesting to note that Patraeus has set the stage (and the justification) for airstrikes on Iranian targets.

    Looks like Bush is going to have free reign with Iran, courtesy of the Democrats in Congress...


  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    In happier news, it looks like the Whitehouse may have shifted priorities away from trying to grant the telecoms immunity:

    Knock on wood.

    A big thanks to everyone who helped derail the fear attack!


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    Thanks for the link. While I didn't specifically talk about the FISA part of it, it made it into this week's Friday Talking Points, so again, thanks for passing it on.


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